Getting personal: how I approach writing about my children

The Brown/McCarthy family (from l-r): Michaela, me, Natasha, Mark, Liam, Elsa and Zack (holding a photo of Aidan). We talk together about what does—and doesn't—go in my blog posts.
One of the questions I get asked most is how my kids feel about the fact that I write about them in my blogs. I write about them all the time, and some of it is pretty personal.

The short answer is that they are fine with it.

The long answer, of course, is a bit more complicated.

My children, actually, have never known anything different. I started writing about them when my two eldest children (now 20 and 18) were in preschool, first in books I wrote about my experiences as a doctor, and then in monthly columns in Sesame Street Parents magazine. Not only did I write about them, but the magazine often sent photographers to take pictures to accompany the columns.

When Zack was in first grade, his teacher came across a column about him in the magazine. She laminated it and put it up in the classroom. Zack genuinely didn’t understand why she made a big deal of it. By then, it was completely normal to him.

After Sesame Street Parents, I wrote for Parenting Magazine, answering questions from readers and writing essays on health and parenting topics. Every month when the magazine came in the mail, the children would rush to see which one of them I wrote about that month. Michaela used to get mad if there was nothing about her.

I realized, early on, that when writing about parenting it is helpful to write about my children. It gives the readers examples. It shows that I understand their struggles, because I live them too. It allows me to keep the writing more personal, more approachable and more relevant than it would be if I wrote just as a doctor or parenting expert.

Writing about my children is useful when discussing health topics, too. I’m not allowed to share details about patients without their parents’ permission. I don’t have this problem when writing about my kids.

This doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t care about how my children feel about having their lives and their feelings exposed. I do care. Over the years, we’ve worked out ground rules—and a family process for deciding what I do and don’t write.

“I always talk with my kids before I write about them. Not so much when they are little—they don’t get the concept. But if I want to use my older ones in or as the subject of my blog, they are part of creating it.”

I always talk with my kids before I write about them. Not so much when they are little—they don’t get the concept. But if I want to use my older ones in or as the subject of my blog, they are part of creating it.

We talk about topics at the dinner table. It’s always really interesting to get their take on a subject—we had a particularly lively conversation when I wrote the Tiger Mother post. They will tell me what they think I should say; they brag about it when I use their ideas. The post becomes as much theirs as mine.

Before I wrote the post about my eldest daughter’s recent diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, I called her at college, told her what I wanted to say, and asked if it was okay if I wrote it. If she had said no, I would never have done it. I emailed my college-age son a draft of a post that included him; he asked me to take out a line, and I did. I talk to my 13-year-old about what I want to say about her, to make sure she’s fine with it. If she’s not, I don’t say it. I will often print up or email blogs for everyone to look at (the big kids watch out for the little ones, and let me know if they think I’m giving Too Much Information about anyone). I always show the blog to my husband; as the father of my children, and as someone who works at Children’s too, he has final editorial say.

At some point the little ones start getting the concept, and find out that I wrote about their temper tantrums and potty training. But nobody has minded yet. Their older siblings laugh and talk about how I wrote about their tantrums and potty training. It has simply become part of the culture of our family.

There are certain topics, certain facets or times of each child’s life, that I would never, ever write about. It varies from child to child—but some things just are too personal. My children know I would never write about those things—because respecting and caring for each other is part of the culture of our family too.

I love writing, especially writing about health and parenting. But I love my family more.

(This blog was read and approved by Michaela, Zack, Elsa and my husband, Mark. Liam can’t read all the words so they approved it on his behalf. Natasha didn’t want to read it; she wanted to play outside instead.)

5 thoughts on “Getting personal: how I approach writing about my children

  1. This post came at just the right time for me. My children are 3 and 6. Previously, I had written about them without too much worry since most of my posts were about baby and toddler issues.

    Now with my son in kindergarten, it really has me second guessing how much info. I share about them. They say, what you publish on the internet is forever. I don’t want to inadvertently cause them harm or set them up for ridicule simply because I wanted to share an anecdote about them.

    I like how you include your children, collaborating with them on your posts. I will soon start this with my son and daughter when they are old enough.

    I recently wrote about how wonderfully sensitive I thought my son was but changed it a bit b/c I worried it could be a source of teasing in the future. Crazy I know. I’m trying to find that balance.

    So glad to have found you and your wonderful blog. Thank you for sharing your stories.

  2. The way you include your real-life examples if exactly WHY I love reading your posts! Many thanks to your family for sharing their lives with readers in the pursuit of better health and parenting; do let them know they are doing a real service!

  3. I am always so touched by your comments and it is because you clearly are invested in your family and your writings are sincere. Your family is beautiful. you should be (and i am sure you are) very proud. Keep up the good work!

  4. Thanks for sharing this insight, Dr McCarthy. I’d been waiting for this post. Your sincerity and transparency with both your writing, your children, and your work is instrumental in providing leadership to other physicians in social media. I’m working hard to demonstrate how getting physicians online is imperative to creating stronger relationships in health. Your content not only reflects science and consensus but compassion and doctoring. Perfect. BUT, it will be different for each and every physician. The lines of comfort with privacy and sharing stories is entirely unique to us all.
    I’m so thankful for your work, your wisdom, your friendship, and your contributions. These decisions are easier for me at this point as my children are 2 and 4 years of age. Or maybe, more challenging as I operate under assumptions. I write each post thinking about possible responses they could have in the future. And I fiercely work to protect their privacy and unique vulnerabilities. But I will continue to check in with them as time unfolds. And this example helps.

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